Al­ready in need of a wake-up call

The Morning Call - - VARSITY - By Mark Bradley

On Sept. 11, 2016, the At­lanta Fal­cons opened at home against Tampa Bay. They lost 31-24, and that was with them scor­ing the fi­nal 11 points. The Buc­ca­neers were work­ing un­der new head coach Dirk Koet­ter and de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Mike Smith, both of whom had pre­vi­ously served with the Fal­cons.

To this ob­server, Game 1 of 2016 was a ran­cid con­tin­u­a­tion of the sec­ond half of the 2015 sea­son, wherein the Fal­cons crashed from a 6-1 start un­der new coach Dan Quinn to an 8-8 fin­ish. They missed the play­offs when it was nigh-im­pos­si­ble to miss the play­offs. Quinn re­tained Kyle Shana­han even as the watch­ing world and yours truly in par­tic­u­lar had de­cided he was ab­so­lutely the wrong of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor for Matt Ryan.

With their next five games against Oak­land, New Or­leans, Carolina, Den­ver and Seat­tle — four of the five on the road! — those Fal­cons were star­ing at the real pos­si­bil­ity of an 0-6 start. I wasn’t alone in think­ing they were done be­fore they’d re­ally started, but I was surely among the most stri­dent. “They’ve be­come a bad team,” I averred, a sen­tence about which I can only say, for the thou­sandth time.

That “bad team” be­came the NFC champ, and only a se­ries of un­for­tu­nate events kept it from hoist­ing the Lom­bardi Tro­phy. Up un­til the fi­nal 17 min­utes of the Su­per Bowl, Shana­han’s work was the gold stan­dard for in­spired play-call­ing. Not in­ci­den­tally, Ryan was the MVP.

On one of Quinn’s Tell-The-Truth Mon­days, I’m not go­ing to lie. The Fal­cons’ show­ing against Min­nesota re­called the Tampa Bay game in its com­pre­hen­sive in­ep­ti­tude. They trailed by 14 points af­ter 7 min­utes. They trailed by 28 with 10 min­utes re­main­ing. In a league where come­backs are the weekly norm, the Vik­ings sat on the ball for nearly the en­tire sec­ond half. The fi­nal score was 28-12. The stats made it look bet­ter than that. It wasn’t.

It was a bad game, yes. But it was — as much as any­thing, I’m re­mind­ing my­self — only one game. The Vik­ings are a dif­fi­cult opener. U.S. Bank Sta­dium is among the tougher places to play. The Fal­cons are work­ing un­der three new co­or­di­na­tors, one be­ing the head coach, who’s do­ing dou­ble duty. (We note that Min­nesota coach Mike Zim­mer also calls his de­fense, to good ef­fect.) They’d re­done their of­fen­sive line. This doesn’t ex­cuse the loss, though it might help ex­plain.

“Might,” I said, and here I un­der­score the ob­vi­ous: The Fal­cons didn’t fire three co­or­di­na­tors as Step 1 in a grad­ual re­build. They fired three co­or­di­na­tors be­cause those who mat­ter — mean­ing Quinn but mostly Arthur Blank — de­cided their play­ers were bet­ter than their coach­ing. (Hav­ing spent two years say­ing the same thing, I wasn’t in­clined to dis­agree.) But fir­ing three co­or­di­na­tors meant the Fal­cons aren’t look­ing long-term.

Over the past three years, they made Devonta Free­man, then Ryan and then Julio Jones the high­est-paid play­ers at their po­si­tions. They spent big to keep Grady Jar­rett. They be­lieve they have the tal­ent to reach an­other Su­per Bowl. The onus is on these co­or­di­na­tors to bring that tal­ent to bear.

Said Quinn on Sun­day, in one of the un­der­state­ments of the age: “It cer­tainly didn’t go like we planned.”

Also: “We’ve got to ad­dress these is­sues and get that fixed.”

Trou­ble was, Sun­day’s loss wasn’t a sin­gle fail­ure. It was sys­temic. Every­thing reeked. (Yes, the de­fense yielded 98 yards pass­ing. That’s be­cause the Vik­ings deigned to throw only 10 passes.) Quinn had to call a third-quar­ter time­out — when you’re en­deav­or­ing to rally from three touch­downs down, you need to save those — be­cause he didn’t have the proper de­fend­ers on the field for first-and-goal. Then the TO burned, Dalvin Cook scored any­way.

We saw again what we’ve known all along: Ryan isn’t the same quar­ter­back when pres­sured. This isn’t a crit­i­cism spe­cific to him; no quar­ter­back is the same when he’s be­ing buf­feted. The ad­di­tion of four of­fen­sive line­men — two via the draft, two in free agency — was de­signed to ad­dress this salient mat­ter.

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